Monday, March 19, 2012

Chennai (Madras) city bus culture

         I had the great privilege of traveling in local city buses for about 10 days from one terminus to another and to my great delight, I discovered that they have a sort of micro-culture... a way of doing things that I have not observed elsewhere! First, let me point out that the buses here are so packed with people that at certain stops along the way the driver will only allow people to exit without allowing the eagerly-waiting people to board the bus. Since I boarded the bus at the terminus (the starting point), I could actually find an empty seat almost always. But by the 3rd stop it is standing room only and here are the things people do: Complete strangers on the bus seem to help each other out in many small ways that make their daily trips to work and school a little less stressed and  bearable.

          The ticket-trail: Since people have no room to move around, but have to buy the ticket from the bus-conductor on-board personally, coins and or a few notes and the name of the stop travels from the newly boarded person and moves rapidly person to person (easily 25-30 different people's hands) to the conductor  ... and then when he receives the few coins or notes and the stop's name, he gives a little piece of paper (the ticket), and now that piece of paper no more than 1x2" with the change (typically a few coins) makes the same journey back to the original person (all the way to the opposite side)! This happens every time the bus stops and new people board in. (No, the conductor does not have his own seat but "forced" to stand in the end ... well at the first 3 stops when the bus is just starting out of the terminus, and is already quite filled with people, the conductor walks from seat to seat starting from the first row, selling tickets and by the time the 4th stop comes, the bus is already packed with people standing and the conductor is now stuck close to the very last row and is unable to move anywhere else). Every time new people enter in, it is only through the front opening (no, buses do not have doors that open and close), the conductor yells out for them to buy the ticket. Of course I followed this money / ticket trail at least a few times and noted with admiration how honest and cooperative complete strangers are to each other!

          Adopt-a-bag: In the mornings just before schools start around 8, at least half the passengers in the bus are very young students hurrying to make it on time. These little ones scramble through the daunting number of adult bodies and somehow manage to find a tight spot to stand .... sandwiched between the hard seats and other pressing bodies around. As soon as they stop moving their little bodies, either they will pass their heavy bags of books to the stranger seated in front of them or many times, the kind strangers themselves reach out and ask for the bags to be given! In one particularly extra-crowded, hot morning, I managed to gather three bags on my lap .... oddly, I was flattered that the little ones trusted me to give their possession and it made me feel really good that I was accepted by them since I did stick out (faces do become familiar in the same routes at the same time)!

          Strangers become Moms:  Some macho young men in their teens and low 20s deliberately wait for the bus to move before hopping on the over-crowded stairs of the bus, barely getting a few toes on the stable flat stair and hold on to the adjoining window bars for their dear lives! They travel for miles this way and the 40 something women quite rightfully scold the young men and forbid strangers around them that are lucky enough to be seated, from accepting their school / computer bags! The chiding is hardly polite and can be loosely translated as "hey, (pretty loudly) if you fall down and die this poor driver will get blamed for your stupidity ... you better leave the bus in the next stop!" To my great surprise I actually saw in a few trips a couple of them listen to the chiding and leave the bus when it stopped! Where else can we see such respect given to scolding, unpleasant strange women??

          One day I missed the bus in its usual stop and just as it was passing me on the road, the driver pulled off the street just to get me in! I was not only grateful (since the next bus was an hour later), but I knew then that I had also become a familiar face within the bus population and "my people" knew that I had to be in that bus at that time!!

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